The Left Returns To Power In Chile

Chile’s presidential run-off was remarkable for many reasons – including the childhood friendship of the two lead candidates, split by Pinochet’s coup 40 years ago, writes Antonio Castillo.

Last weekend Chile experienced a remarkable event. In a country with a poor record of gender equality, two women contested the run-off for the Chilean presidential election. Centre-left Michelle Bachelet, who won an expected landslide victory over her right-wing opponent Evelyn Matthei, was returned to power for a second stint as President – she previously governed from 2006-2010.

What was not expected was the low turnout in the country’s first election with non-compulsory voting. 5.6 million ballots were cast, an estimated 41.5 per cent to 44.8 per cent of the eligible population. As the Chilean  independent news website El Mostrador.com put it, “it is a democracy of the few”.

Last weekend’s run-off followed the 17 November general election, when none of the record nine presidential candidates obtained the majority required by Chile’s presidential system.

The pool was narrowed down to Bachelet and Matthei. Coincidentally, the two are childhood friends, whose experience diverged after the 11 September 1973 coup by General Augusto Pinochet, that overthrew the democratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende.

Bachelet’s father Alberto was a General loyal to Allende, which brought his arrest and death at the hands of the military junta.

Matthei’s father Fernando was also a General. He took a different path after the coup, and became part of Pinochet’s regime, which ruled Chile until the end of the 1980s.

The election of Bachelet, 40 years after Pinochet’s coup, marks the return to power of the centre-left. It also puts an end to the four-year government of the right-wing tycoon Sebastián Piñera a kind of Chilean Silvio Berlusconi. As I wrote in NM in 2010, Piñera’s government was the first time since the military regime that the right was in power.

Piñera became an international name when 33 Chilean miners were hauled to the surface after 69 days trapped in a collapsed mine in 2010. He took the credit for the miners’ rescue, but his brief celebrity never reached the polling booths. The beginning of the end for his right wing parenthesis began last year, when when the right lost some of its safest seats in the country’s legislature.

Bachelet will be sworn in on 11 March next year. Her previous tenure as President was mediocre, she had few legislative achievements and dealt ineffectively with the 2010 earthquake and tsunami that devastated a large part of the centre and south of the country.

She relied instead on a populist approach, peppering her speech with colloquial Chilean Spanish and presenting a caring motherly figure. That may not be enough this time around. Since she lost power in 2010, Chileans have become deeply disaffected and radicalised by the so-called tareas pendientes (outstanding commitments).

Bachelet – who will lead the New Majority coalition that includes Christian Democrats and Communists – was spot on when, in her winning speech, she admitted that Chileans “have distrust and frustration with a state that doesn’t protect them”.

Perhaps the massive political absenteeism that marked last weekend’s run off is a resounding reflection of the Chilean disenchantment with their political class. Traditionally Chileans have had a strong civic and political commitment, and heading to the polls has been deeply inscribed in the Chilean political conscience.

But steady disengagement with traditional politics has diverted the spirit once felt for the ballot box into street politics. Massive street mobilisations over the last few years are spearheaded by a wide, cross-factional group demanding an improvement to the appalling education system, better healthcare, the democratisation of an authoritarian constitution left in place by Pinochet, reforms to the taxation system, improvement of pensions, commitment to environmental protection and justice for the indigenous people whose struggle has been systematically criminalised.

The greatest demand of all is to close the abysmal gap in Chile’s income distribution, long regarded as a stain on Chilean society and an obstacle to a truly consolidated democracy. Chile might well be an example to follow for other Latin American countries, as an orderly economically sound society. But this is not the whole story. The promised trickle down never eventuated: according to a study by the University of Chile, the richest 1 per cent of the population concentrates 31 per cent of the wealth.

These are some of the outstanding and urgent tasks President Bachelet will have to honour in Chile’s new political paradigm, in the “democracy of the few”.

Posted in New Matilda


Who Did Brazil Vote For?

Is Brazil’s first female president just keeping the seat warm for the return of Lula da Silva? Antonio Castillo reports on the election results.

Only a week after the election of Dilma Rousseff as the first female president of Brazil, it is becoming clear that the outgoing — and immensely popular Luis Inácio “Lula” da Silva isn’t going anywhere.

Through the first post-election week, Lula has sent clear signals that he will keep a tight grip on power and that he will exert a powerful political influence on the new administration. Lula will hang around making sure his and his Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party or PT in Portuguese) legacy is preserved — and who could argue against it.

After all, this former metal worker with just primary education has transformed Brazil into a success story.

During Lula’s two terms as president — in 2002 and then in 2006 — he has given Brazil unprecedented domestic political stability and an increasing international political influence. Brazil is Australia’s largest trading partner in Latin America and there is successful collaboration between the two countries in agriculture, mining and the service sector.

Even more importantly — Brazil’s steady economic growth has helped millions of its poorest citizens to lift their living standards. Brazil is today the eighth largest economy in the world and it may be able to take over Japan by 2050. No wonder that at the end of his second term, Lula’s popularity is above 80 per cent, making him, in Barack Obama’s words, “the most popular politician in the world”.

For Rousseff, Lula will be a hard act to follow and her win last weekend was unquestionably due to Lula’s popularity. However, Lula’s popularity has not transferred automatically to Rousseff. The political support she received last weekend was well below what Lula obtained in his successful campaigns in 2002 and 2006.

Rousseff won the run-off election with 56 per cent of support against José Serra, from the conservative Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB). With a hundred million votes cast, this adds up to some twelve million votes difference.

Rousseff and the PT won in the north and northeast of the country. These are the poorest and the least educated regions of Brazil — and only provide 15 per cent of the GDP. This is the stronghold of Lula where he enjoys a popularity of up to 90 per cent.

On the other hand, Serra and the PSDB won in the south of the country, the wealthiest region of Brazil — including Sao Paulo, Minas Gerais, Paraná y Goiás. This region provides 54 per cent of the national GDP.

The result showed that the PT without Lula is a vulnerable political force and that the PSDB under Serra — a former left-wing militant — can become an effective opposition to the new government. It also showed that Brazil post-Lula risks being a politically polarised country.

The extraordinary success of Brazil’s Green Party, which received 20 per cent of the vote, suggests that a third force may be emerging in Brazilian politics.

Ideologically speaking, the Brazilian Greens are a world apart from the Australian Greens: the Brazilian version is not located on the left of the spectrum and is socially conservative being antiabortion, for example. The Greens leader is former Lula minister Mariana Silva; her win has been attributed more to her evangelical religious background than to her environmental policies.

Lula didn’t attend the victory speech of Rousseff on the weekend. It was a symbolic gesture – he didn’t want to overshadow the newly elected president but his absence didn’t last long. Since the beginning of last week, Lula has been advising Rousseff regarding the composition of the new government. Indeed, the majority of Lula’s cabinet is likely to stay.

For example, Lula asked Rousseff to keep Guido Mantega as Minister of Economy and Henrique Meirelles at the helm of Brazil’s Central Bank. These are key positions and will preserve Lula’s neoliberal economic policies, policies that have attracted fury from the left.

In this regard, Lula has not hesitated to oppose some powerful figures inside the PT. For any other politician, this would have been political suicide — but not for Lula. His popularity and success have not only made him almost invulnerable but also given him a great deal of personal independence from the machinery of the PT.

The party has a key peculiarity, the further up you get, the more technocratic the PT becomes. This explains in part the almost unilateral and personal decision of Lula to choose Rousseff as his successor. Rousseff was chief-of-staff of Lula’s second term in office. No charisma, authoritarian and a novice in political contests. Rousseff — the daughter of a communist émigré Bulgarian lawyer and and a schoolteacher — joined the guerrilla group Comando de Libertação Nacional (National Liberation Command or COLINA) after the 1964 military coup d’état. She was arrested and the two-years in jail and her tortures have been well documented.

In selecting Rousseff, Lula challenged many powerful forces. She was not the favourite candidate of the Party — which she joined only in 2000. When Lula chose Rousseff as his successor, he also challenged Brazil’s powerful armed forces who did not support the new president either.

It is widely speculated that Lula is preparing a comeback — and in Rousseff he has found the right person to keep his seat warm and safe. “Lula wanted to put somebody who is a reasonable manager and loyal for the time he can’t be elected,” Thiago Oppermann, a Brazilian analyst told New Matilda. What Lula is seeking is a four-year orderly transition — until he is able to get back in power in 2014.

Posted in New Matilda